Following Joshua’s initial conquest of Canaan and the period of the judges, the Israelites expressed their desire for a king (1 Sam. 8). This request was motivated by Israel’s desire to be like the other nations who looked to a king to fight its battles (v. 20) rather than to the Lord who promised to wage war for the people (Ex. 14:14). The request for a king in Samuel’s day was an implicit rejection of God as king (1 Sam. 8:7–9).
Importantly, the sin behind the people’s request reveals why Samuel frowned upon it. The desire for a king over Israel was not itself inherently evil; the Lord has always been pleased to rule His people through a human vice-regent when they seek a king with pure motives. This is clear in today’s passage, which was written long before the Israelites asked Samuel for a king. Indeed, Deuteronomy 17:14–20 looks for Israel to have a king — a king whom God Himself chooses (vv. 14–15).
The type of king God desires is defined in this passage. First, the king must be an Israelite, not a foreigner (v. 15). This would help prevent Israel from becoming subservient to another empire and guard against the introduction of false gods by outsiders. The concern to prevent idolatry is also behind the warning for the king not to take many wives who would turn his heart away from the Creator (v. 17). Unfortunately, Solomon’s own life demonstrated the wisdom of this stipulation (1 Kings 11:1–8). The king must also not seek excessive military might in the form of horses or excessive luxury in the form of silver and gold (Deut. 17:16–17).
Since ancient Near Eastern kings were honored according to the size of their armies, treasuries, and harems, we can see how the king of Israel was to be most unlike the kings of pagan nations. Israel’s king was to be subservient to God’s law (vv. 18–20). As a servant of the people, the king did not abide by different rules, for he was subject to the same commands and penalties as ordinary people. Here is the notion of the rule of law that has become so prominent in Western legal theory. We see this principle illustrated in point 45 of the Magna Carta: “We will appoint as justiciars, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs only such men as know the law of the kingdom and well desire to observe it.” Though we do not live in a theocracy like Israel, rulers both secular and in the church are never laws unto themselves.
For decades, presidents, parliaments, and other ruling bodies in our country and around the world have paid lip service to the rule of law while acting as if they are above the laws of the land. We can do something about this in our own society by voting for people who will subject themselves to God’s moral claims (natural law). We can also strive to follow God’s law and make disciples who may grow into godly leaders in positions of influence both great and small.